Blackfish vs. Sea World: A Critical Look at an Emotional Issue

Irony.

Sometimes I have to really think long and hard about an issue to blog about. Other times an issue hits me over the head as if from out of the deep blue sea.

I just watched the popular documentary BLACKFISH about Orca whales and Sea World.  This powerful documentary leaves me no choice but to opine; it is extremely powerful, emotional and rife with issues to critically analyze once you can separate yourself from its intense emotional tone.  I am as stricken with sadness while watching a wounded and isolated whale as anyone.

Blackfish

The subject matter concerns a scathing look at Sea World and its apparent unethical and inhumane treatment of Orca “killer” whales. (Interestingly, there is not a known incident of these mammals ever killing a human in the wild, thus the name “killer” is rather misplaced, unless you count marine life.) The primary protagonist in this story is the whale “Tilikum” who has played a role in the deaths of 3 people over the course of 20 years.  As I will critically speak to the fairness and validity of the documentary itself in a moment, I must first say that whether you come out of this film loving or—though far more likely—hating Sea World, you will certainly gain a good amount of education about these amazing and highly evolved whales—an education I thoroughly appreciated and found very enlightening. Frankly, I will never look at any human-animal relationship the same.

Essentially, the primary source of information for BLACKFISH is interviews with former whale hunters and Sea World employees, primarily trainers. The documentary plays out like a traditional confessional for the long string of penitents who tearfully confess to being a part of a system that mistreated (albeit in ignorance) animals; their penance is 3 “Our Fathers” and an appearance in an anti-Sea World documentary in the church of BLACKFISH.  These interviews became the primary source of my cognitive tension.

All of these former trainers claim they worked at Sea World for one reason: The love of the whales. So, the former Sea World trainers, now reformed and repentant animal rights activists, have a bit of a quandary. They worked at Sea World because they loved Orcas and now they do not work at Sea World because they love Orcas. And the reason they fell in love with Orcas was due to their exposure at Sea World.

I get it…they evolved and now see the light.

The reason I have now learned and gained a thorough appreciation for these mammals is because a place like Sea World exists, bringing public awareness and education. Ultimately, and hopefully, this public awareness results in positive consequences for these animals, namely the global outlawing of their hunting and killing.

BLACKFISH, like most documentaries, takes an angle and must make the narrative fit its objective -complete with protagonist vs. antagonist, good vs. evil- if only the real world were that simple. For example, the New York Times reports that Kelly Flaherty Clark, who works as a curator of trainers for Tilikum, was represented in the documentary as a rather cold and cunning Sea World “suit” and was stunned by the portrayal of her testimony at an OSHA hearing -claiming the documentary was selective in a way that did not accurately represent her views.

“We sleep and breathe care of animals,” said Ms. Clark.

I believe her. It seems all those who invest themselves in these whales’ lives do so out of love and concern. There has got to be an easier way to make a buck than to tote tons of whales around.

Sea World has long left the business of capturing whales from the wild, as they now breed their own whales. (Although I could have gone my entire life without seeing a killer whale get jerked off, thank you very much…close your eyes on that one kiddos.)

Sea World has challenged the documentary with 8 assertions of misrepresentation. If you would like to read an excellent and critical dialogue concerning Sea World vs. BLACKFISH, this is a must read. For example, Sea World argues against “the accusation that (they) callously break up killer whale families.” According to this article, “Sea World does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales.  It moves killer whales only when doing so is in the interest of their long-term health and welfare.  And despite the misleading footage in the film, the only time it separates unweaned killer whale calves from their mothers is when the mothers have rejected them.”

Don’t you hate that ‘two-sides-to-every-story’ thing? Again, I absolutely believe Sea World is in it for the money, yet I also believe they do care deeply about these animals. The former trainers actually convinced me of that.

“That is all fine,” one might contend, “then why did Sea World consistently reject requests to be interviewed for the documentary?”

I have always told my critical thinking classes that if anyone ever wants to interview you for a documentary the answer should always be no—as the success of the documentary is found in the editing bay. It is simply not a fair fight. A documentary can make anyone look as good/bad, dumb/smart, right/wrong as they want to. If I were Sea World I would have most definitely rejected the same requests. Contemporary documentaries are not about seeking truth; they are about creating compelling narratives— as a result, accuracy be damned if it ruins a good beginning, middle and end.

Our understanding of Orcas and marine life in general essentially only spans the past 30-40 years. As an example of our growing understanding, there is still a lot of debate about their life span due to the fact that our research is a relatively recent undertaking. In the 1960’s, when these now sorrowful whale hunters sought out these creatures for their marine zoos, we knew essentially nothing about them. Since this time, we have learned much about them…to the point we have studied their brains and found them to have a highly evolved communication and emotional system; perhaps even more evolved than our own.

The basic moral quandary is this: Does essentially “enslaving” (dare I say “domesticating”) a few highly intelligent animals for the purpose of raising public awareness in hopes of bringing more safety and advantage to the many, while turning a profit in the process, justify itself? Whales are not the only animals we enslave/domesticate; we enslave our dogs, cats, birds, etc. for no other reason than to bring us companionship, pleasure, and, in some cases to work for us (think seeing eye dogs). Is this morally justified? Is it animal slavery as PETA contends when they tried to sue Sea World for violating the Orcas constitutional rights? What is the difference between domesticating a highly intelligent German Shepherd for our pleasure or an Orca, other than one is much bigger? At least through domesticating the Orca it may ultimately save thousands of wild whales.

As with the solutions to most problems, there has got to be some middle ground. Why is it we need a hero and a villain? Black or white? Perhaps the villain is a bit hero and the hero a bit villain; after all, such moral ambiguity far more closely resembles real life.  The question is not whether there should be a marine zoo or not, rather, how can we change the nature of these facilities to best accommodate what we now know about these magnificent creatures?

I must confess to feeling a bit strange as a little child going to the zoo and observing animals locked up behind a cage. I would think they are either the luckiest and most fortunate animals on the planet without having to worry about their next meal or worse being another animal’s next meal; or the most miserable, enslaved and imprisoned creatures on the planet for essentially no good reason.

Apparently, I am not alone in this feeling because many zoos are transforming into mock natural habitats and rescues, moving away from the traditional zoo paradigm. Perhaps Sea World needs to follow suit.

BLACKFISH ends with several of the former trainers taking a boat out to the bay and watching Orcas swim in the wild, complete with their erect dorsal fins. It is a touching scene to be sure, yet I cannot help but drown in the thought that this tender yet powerful moment was made possible, for all parties, by Sea World.

Irony.

 

“Heckler”: This Could Get Interesting

I am far from a film critic. In fact, the only two areas I feel completely qualified to critique are speaking and parenting; I am not perfect in either I just know the subject matter really well. In regards to film I know what I like and I know what I don’t like—yet I am absolutely unqualified to adequately explain why, as I have no training or knowledge of the filmmaking process. I know I tend to like character driven movies (The Big Lebowski, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Next, The Truman Show) over plot driven movies (The Matrix….yuck), as I would rather watch interesting people doing nothing particularly interesting over watching uninteresting people doing something interesting; which probably explains why I could watch Steve Buscemi eat cereal for 90 minutes.

But that’s just me. Interesting and strange people strangely interest me. (Why do I feel a Doors song coming on?)

Thus when I was inspired today to write my thoughts on the documentary, “Heckler” which can be found on Netflix, I feared being a bit presumptuous.  Again, I am not a film critic and have no foundation to critique an art form about which I know so little.  Yet, frequently, perhaps as the result of my position, I am asked my opinion of certain films, books, or, in this case, a documentary. And, I rationalize, documentaries are an entirely different type of film making rendering them much more critique-able. So, in the spirit of sharing with each other something interesting, here ya go.  I think you might find this one doc interesting as well.

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Ironically, “Heckler,” produced and directed by Jaime Kennedy (Malibu’s Most Wanted) is a doc about both the hecklers of stand up comedians and, secondly, the nature of critics in general. Essentially, the first half of the documentary is about the evil and subversive nature of hecklers and how all comedians disdain their very existence. We watch poor stand up comedians complain about their strenuous and back-breaking vocations for about an hour as they explain their loathing of hecklers.  The second half of the documentary is about critics in general and how our society has evolved into a culture of opinionated and entitled audiences. Consumers of media today (which would include all of us) are evolving into a collection of vocal and mean-spirited critics who are wholly unqualified to be so.

As someone once told me long ago as I was in the middle of a lovely critical rant, “they never built a monument for a critic.” I get it.

Overall, I really enjoyed this documentary if, for nothing else, the raw footage of hecklers in audiences and the live verbal -and frequently physical encounters- during live shows. It reminds viewers how the live stand-up comedy scene has changed into an often cruel and biting environment. As a budding sociologist, it also lends insight into group behaviors, ethics and social expectations. In addition, if you like interesting people like Joe Rogan, Nick Swardson, Craig Ferguson, Jon Lovitz, and Dave Attell among many others, they all share some interesting opinions, even if they all sound a tad whiny -interesting whiny however.

In regards to the second half of the film, I must say that I agree with the premise, as too many unqualified, untrained people have a medium now to voice their criticism over something (you’re reading one right now).  In addition, the documentary poignantly addresses that people not only now have the means to share their opinions, but also how cruel and hateful their ignorant opinions can be.

It was that great critic Socrates who first pointed out that the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing. The problem with the critics is they think they know something. And then talk as if they do.

The tension I found in the documentary is some of the great hypocrisy of these entertainers. When you have Bill Maher complaining that all performers are by nature sensitive people and today the critics are so mean and insensitive…really? Bill Maher? Is he not one of the meanest and most insensitive comics of all? I do find him smart and entertaining though he is doing NOTHING to promote a culture of civil and kind dialogue.

In my experience with stand up comedy, it seems that often the comic is the instigator of the heckling environment. It was not that long ago that I was standing outside a comedy show and a woman who was in the audience was outside crying because the comic picked on her so badly.

“What the hell did I ever do to him?” she sobbed.

Civility must always be a two way street.

Kennedy, the film’s producer, reads some of the awful -and quite funny- reviews for his “Malibu’s Most Wanted” movie and interviews people after his live shows that did not think he was funny. These people, who you would guess could barely write their own name, have the balls to look him in the eye and explain (even occasionally using verbs and some words with more than one syllable) why he is not funny and should not be in show business.

That Socrates guy may have been on to something when he philosophized that the only true evil is ignorance. Maybe by “evil” Socrates really meant chutzpah.

So if you want to see a bunch of interesting people talk about some interesting stuff with some very interesting footage, pull up a strange and interesting chair and enjoy “Hecklers.” Then tell me what you think.

This could get interesting.

 

 

One Nation Under Sex Or Happy MLK Day!!

One-Nation-Under-Sex-How-the-Private-Lives-of-Presidents-First-Ladies-and-Their-Lovers-Changed-the-Course-of-American-HistoryBy far and away, one of the most interesting and insightful books I have read in the past couple of years has been “One Nation Under Sex” by Dr. David Eisenbach.  The author most associated with this work is Hustler porn man Larry Flynt, yet he has as much to do with writing this book as Garfunkel had with the success of Simon and Garfunkel…or that other Wham! guy with George Michael.wham

I am saddened that Flynt gets most of the credit for the writing of this book because Columbia University lecturer and historian Dr. Eisenbach is primarily responsible for this wonderful historic account of how sex has played an overwhelmingly large role in our nation’s history -from changing public policy to winning or losing wars.  The book is academic in every sense with all claims sufficiently backed with reliable historical accounts. It is neither lurid nor appealing to prurient interests; it is flat out eye opening and educational.

If I were an American History professor, this most certainly would be either required or suggested reading.

To summarize this work in as few words possible, sexuality has played as much a part in American politics as any other underlying force; to be unaware and uneducated on this, as many prefer to pretend the great majority of our nation’s leaders were NOT horny bastards, is to be left ignorant and gullible. It is a magnificent study in basic human nature and its interplay with public policy.

And by horny bastards, I mean normal men. And I’m not talking about the members of the Philanderer’s Hall of Fame, appropriately named, Kennedy and Clinton’s Club. No. Names you would clinton-kennedyhave never associated with such behavior.

Oh, but the ladies do not get a free pass on this either as the book reveals plenty of female forays.

The one chapter that was obviously authored by Flynt is actually an excellent one as he reveals the grand hypocrisy of the modern day politician. I do not respect Flynt for much, however in this sense, he is a hero. Several times he has offered a one million dollar reward for information leading to the “scandalous” sexual lives of elected leaders. The first time he did this in 1997 it lead to the resignation of incoming Speaker of the House Bob Livingston.

Flynt has no problem with congress having sexual dalliances; he has trouble with those politicians who publicly rail for purity while privately getting a lap dance from Puritee down at Little Darlings;  the politician who votes for no gays in the military as he or she privately carries on gay love affairs.

I bring this up on Martin Luther King day. Why?  MLK was quite renowned for his “activism” in the bedroom, at least if we were to believe J. Edgar Hoover’s reports. The man who carried the weight of the Civil Rights movement on his own shoulders often carried the weight of several mistresses on his shoulders, and probably his back, perhaps legs, and maybe even occasionally his arms as well.

Martin-Luther-King-Jr-9365086-2-402I mean MLK absolutely no disrespect; conversely, there are few that admire the man more than I do.

MLK had one problem, he was human.  I do not support lying or cheating or any other “flaw” (is it a flaw if we all have it?) we humans have in our make-up, however, I support people who are real people. Unafraid.

I have found that for every valuable trait we possess there exists a shadow to that trait, an often troubling flipside.  The attractive strong and silent type is also the uncommunicative prick.  The overly romantic man is eventually the wimp who needs to get his act together.  The witty and funny female is concurrently the woman who cannot keep her mouth shut. Thus a passionate man is a passionate man, whether in front of the Lincoln memorial or in a downtown no-tell motel. Passion knows no bounds.

I am a quote guy and the following one MLK delivered has been etched in my mind for years:

“I say to you, this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are  just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

WOW. And would anyone want to rob someone of what makes them great?

Today I honor the man. The MAN. Not the larger than life mythical figure we have created that cannot possibly live up to our high moral expectations. I honor the “flawed” individual whose passion knew no bounds.

I honor that passion. I admire that passion. That passion was a wake up call for an entire country. Even if we are one nation under sex, that underlying driving passion can take us where we need to go. Happy MLK day everyone.